When new students step foot on campus for the first time, it’s with the knowledge that it’s about to become their home away from home. It’s not always an easy transition, however, especially during a pandemic.

Amelia Kolany knows that first-hand. She’s now a senior studying Spanish and psychology, but just a few years ago, she was a freshman trying to find her place on campus.

“Freshman year was really difficult, just with homesickness and adjusting,” said Kolany. “It was hard to meet people and make friends.”

It’s a common sentiment among new students, but there’s one avenue students can try to help fill that gap: a registered student organization. When Kolany began her own search for the right RSO, it was with the hope of finding one that could make a campus as big as UIUC feel small and personal. That’s when she found Mi Pueblo. The group gives students a way to practice their Spanish and meet new people at the same time.

“I loved that it was a very small group,” said Kolany. “I just felt very comfortable. It was only an hour long, but it just elevated my mood so much to be able to be with people who also enjoyed speaking Spanish, and to do it in a less formal setting that wasn’t so high-stakes and that wasn’t really a classroom setting. I just loved it.”

She loved it so much that she continued attending Mi Pueblo's meetings throughout her first year. Then, COVID-19 hit and put a stop to in-person interactions. On top of that, the group was left without a leadership team after its past leaders graduated or moved on.

Kolany knew she had to do something, so she reached out to Mi Pueblo’s faculty advisor, Brenden Carollo, a professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese and director of fourth semester Spanish.

“I emailed professor Carollo and said I would love to help the organization get back on its feet,” said Kolany. “I didn’t want to see the club fade away again.”

That didn’t happen, thanks in part to Kolany. She helped lead Mi Pueblo through the pandemic, switching to virtual meetings for a while.

“That was difficult, because it’s just harder to speak any language over Zoom,” she said. “People are less comfortable speaking or interacting that way.”

Group of students laughing and chatting
Photo provided by Amelia Kolany

When they were finally able to meet in person last year, that changed everything.

“Having that face-to-face interaction, even though we still had masks on, we saw a much higher turnout,” said Kolany. “It was more interactive, and we started to see more regular members coming in. We all started to get to know each other, and we had a great group of leaders form.”

While the return to in-person interactions helped, Carollo said Kolany also played a big role, particularly in retaining those members.

“[Kolany] has been a steady force creating and guiding a strong leadership community for Mi Pueblo,” said Carollo. “She herself is very humble about this and emphasizes that she is only one of many members, but I believe that it does require a competent leader to have a competent team. Even last semester when she was studying abroad and turned over day-to-day responsibilities to her vice-president, she remained available remotely to the organization from Spain.”

The leadership team's main strategy has been to try to implement more activities, not just for Mi Pueblo’s general membership, but also for the facilitators who lead the meetings.

“It was the first time we’ve done something like that, and I think it just made us closer,” said Kolany.

Mi Pueblo is also pivoting towards hosting bigger events to bring more people together. In September, they held an horchata hour, chatting over the traditional Mexican drink, and every October, they host an event for Dia de los Muertos. Kolany said she and her team are always looking for more ideas, too.

“Being open to new ideas is something we love to do, too,” she said. “If a facilitator or member has an idea about something, they’re more than welcome to bring it up to us, and most of the time, we’re really excited about it and find a way to implement it into what we’re doing.”

Group of students standing outside
Photo provided by Brenden Carollo

Kolany said the group is always looking for more members, too, regardless of Spanish speaking levels.

“We’re all there to improve our Spanish, and our motto is that it doesn’t matter what your level of Spanish is – if you’re just beginning, if you’re fluent, or if you’re somewhere in the middle,” she said. “We just want everyone to participate and feel welcome, and to not be afraid to use their Spanish.”

If members are a little afraid, however, Kolany said that’s okay, too.

“Even though I’ve been studying Spanish [since high school] I still have a lot to learn,” she said. “Feeling nervous about joining is completely normal, even among the members who have been a part of Mi Pueblo for all four years of their college experience. If people are interested in finding a group that can help them meet people and make friends, I think Mi Pueblo is a great way to do that.”

Dania De La Hoya Rojas